Representation for Black Women Is More Than a Request, It’s a Necessity

Editors’ Note: This story was originally published on The Everygirl in January 2020, but in an effort to amplify important content by our Black writers, we are reposting for those who may not have seen it originally.

 

As a child and pre-teen, there were very few things I wanted more than to see myself represented in the magazines, television shows, and films that I watched. I wasn’t satisfied with having to see myself in the traditional ways Black women are portrayed in media: hypersexual “jezebels” (think Halle Berry in The Flintstones), slaves, and sassy sidekicks.

I wanted to read books, watch television shows, and see blockbuster films like Notting Hill about happy Black women just living — falling in love, building careers, and loving their lives in a world that loved them back.

At that time, the media felt (and still feels) more akin to a toxic ex-boyfriend. You fall in love with his potential and how great the two of you could be, wanting so badly for him to love you back. Yet his response (if he gives one) is usually cold and disparaging and leaves you feeling worthless. According to the African American Policy Forum, representation of Black women in media is “disproportionately sparse” and when it does happen, it is often a regurgitation of negative stereotypes. 

Unfortunately, I know this fact all too well. Every time I would watch a movie with Jennifer Aniston or some other conventionally beautiful white woman with blue eyes and blonde hair, I’d end up feeling worse about myself. The truth is that women who appeal to conventional beauty standards are afforded more privileges in society; on the other hand, those (like myself) with West African, Bantu features are rarely praised in the same way. Young me was acutely aware of this fact, as the next generation of Black girls will be too.

 

The truth is that women who appeal to conventional beauty standards are afforded more privileges in society; on the other hand, those (like myself) with West African, Bantu features are rarely praised in the same way.

 

Many Black girls grow up feeling ugly, inferior, and unwanted. It’s not uncommon to feel shame about our dark skin tones or our coily locs which look nothing like the straight, silky European-textured hair we see in the media. These stories are paradigm in the global Black diaspora.

 

 

The media is currently failing Black women and girls

A 2012 study on media representation found that young Black girls experienced lowered self-esteem after watching more television. White boys, on the other hand, tended to feel better about themselves afterward. 

This is because Black female representation (or the lack thereof) leaves Black women and girls feeling ignored and unheard. From a young age, we are bombarded with images of what a real woman looks like (namely, white women with bone-straight hair and stick-thin bodies). When comparing ourselves to society’s European standard of beauty, Black women and girls find themselves lacking.

Think about the faces you see in the newsstands when waiting in line at the grocery store. Do they appeal to traditional beauty standards? Probably. Are they often anything other than white? Usually, no.

 

 

Media representation is affecting other parts of our lives too

At first glance, it would appear that there are worse problems among Black women than the way we are represented in modern media. For one, our rates of heart disease, obesityand mental illness are sadly much higher than our non-Black female counterparts, and we die of breast cancer at a higher rate as well. According to Self, Black women generally report more frequent feelings of “sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness, and the sense that everything is an effort” than white women do. But, as doctors begin to find correlations between the abysmal health status of African-American women and their self-esteem, I think it’s very worth having another look at the media representation we receive. 

“When you get right down to it, many of our problems can be traced to poor self-esteem,” family practitioner Dr. John T. Chissell told The New York Times in 1989. “We live in an intensely racist society that teaches us to hate ourselves, and some of us do.”

Self-hate among Black women is an epidemic. And it’s a direct result of misrepresentation in the media.

For Black women and girls, going to the movies often means watching two hours of someone who doesn’t look like you, immersing yourself in a life that barely resembles your own, and being reminded of the ease and privileges others have that may never be afforded to you.

 

For Black women and girls, going to the movies often means watching two hours of someone who doesn’t look like you, immersing yourself in a life that barely resembles your own, and being reminded of the ease and privileges others have that may never be afforded to you.

 

Sure, once a year, magazine publications may invite a Black model or actress for a photo shoot to convince consumers that they’re “all about diversity.”  But for the other 11 months of the year, they happily hire only white models to cover their magazines and fill newsstands.

 

 

Black women can reclaim power by creating platforms for and by us

While this used to frustrate me immensely growing up, I eventually realized that us Black women don’t have to sit by idly waiting to be noticed. The quintessential media platforms that I’d been waiting for as a child — the ones that celebrated my beauty and gave me a voice — may never exist if we don’t start creating them ourselves. From podcasts to magazines to television shows to movies, we can play a role in placing ourselves on the map.

And not only by creating these platforms, but by supporting them.

This September, I launched my own online publication, Sorella Magazine. I was fed up after years of working for publications that didn’t represent or reflect my life as a Black woman in North America. The magazine is a place where Black women can gather, learn, voice opinions, and discuss the nuances of Black female identity. 

Sorella Magazine may never be in the grocery store stands, but it’s a small space (and a safe space) for Black female voices to exist and to voice our opinions and be heard. In addition to the platform I’ve created, there are other websites that positively depict Black girls and our natural hair, such as CRWN Magazine and EveryStylishGirl. These platforms are vital for the self-esteem of Black women and children.

 

 

We can all help fix the representation problem by regularly calling out the oversaturation of whiteness in the media. Most importantly, we can support and share platforms, books, TV shows and movies that center on Black women who have more nuance than stereotypical portrayals. This means opting for a film that stars a quirky Black girl as opposed to the hypersexual Black female whose only role in the film is to be objectified. It means casting a Black woman as the main love interest, instead of the best friend who helps the beautiful lead get the guy and only serves as the movie’s comic relief.

 

We can all help fix the representation problem by regularly calling out the oversaturation of whiteness in the media.

 

Also, we need to be open to replacing traditionally white roles and stories with Black and female voices. And when Black women begin to take up more space and speak louder, society needs to be ready to listen and take heed.